The Magic Flute is not Mozart's greatest opera. Do you catch my drift? "A Personal Matter" is not Kenzaburo Oe's greatest novel, but it is definitely great. Like many of Dickens's novels, the conclusion seems too deliberately conclusive and somewhat forced. Until the last chapter, however, this is a novel of such searing emotional terror that most readers will be grateful for its unexpected 'hopeful' ending.
"A Personal Matter" is easily Oe's most popular novel, outselling all others by a huge margin both in Japan and outside. That's easy to explain. It's his easiest, most traditional narrative, strictly chronological, told by an 'omniscient' narrator whose omniscience is obviously a mask for the author's projection of his own consciousness into his character named Bird. There is none of Oe's usual deliberate disorder and allusive/elusive obscurity. Plenty of 'shocking' scenes occur, but for Kenzaburo Oe this novel is almost chaste in its depictions of perversity and violence. If the reader is at all acquainted with Oe's other books, or with Oe's true 'personal matter' behind Bird's crisis, it's not hard to intuit that the author wanted and needed a simple structure, distanced from himself, to work out the anguish of his imagination.
Oe's personal matter was the birth of his first child, a son, with severe brain damage. That was in 1963. In 1964, Oe wrote two 'accounts' of his experience, this novel "A Personal Matter" and the short story "Aghwee the Sky Monster". Prior to 1963, most of Oe's writings had focused on the catastrophes of recent Japanese history: the war, the collapse of the Japanese identity along with the de-deification of the Emperor, and the bombing of Hiroshima. Since 1963, Oe's most powerful writing has traced the evolution of his fatherhood, of his intense bonding with his unique son. Oe the man has been a difficult, eruptive, unmanageable person, whose identity-pains inflate to fill any space he enters. From so much pain, so much humanity!
Oe would have been a great writer even if his son had been born in mediocre normalcy. Once in a while, I persuade myself that I can write, if not popularly at least honestly, but Oe's 'honesty' to his own craft as a writer and to his own humanity leaves me gasping in awe. This is the same honesty that I admire in the writings of WG Sebald. Neither Oe nor Sebald is bound to literal veracity, fact for fact, in their obviously autobiographical fictions. Both of them shape their lives imaginatively in their story-telling. But Oe's imagination comes closer to Reality than anyone else's 'swear-on-a-bible' truth. Think of the greatest autobiographers of the past -- Augustine, Rousseau, De Quincey, Lowell -- and get ready for an Oe who spills his guts more courageously than any of them.